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CBD is Great, But THC Health Benefits are Awesome, Too

Randy Robinson
thc chemical formula

The media loves to talk about the health benefits of CBD, but maybe we should be talking about THC. It’s not just a high; THC is great medicine.

If you read enough news articles about CBD, you’ll inevitably come across a sentence that looks something like this: “THC gets people high while CBD is what gives cannabis its medical properties.”

Hogwash.

It’s true that CBD has medicinal powers. Science has known this ever since the University of Tel Aviv’s Dr. Raphael Mechoulam began chemically analyzing cannabis in the 1960s. But to simply characterize THC as “the part of cannabis that gets us high” is just flat-out dishonest.

Like CBD, THC also has medicinal properties. In fact, THC is just as important – if not more important – than CBD when it comes to medically consuming cannabis.

THC versus CBD

Image Credit: Lifestyle Discover

Why? Recall that cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system, a chemical-signaling network that keeps our organs, tissues, and cells in a state of natural balance called homeostasis. This network operates through little proteins channels on our cells called CB receptors: the cannabinoids attach to these receptors and, depending on which cannabinoids get to the receptors first, cause the cell to behave in several ways that can protect and heal the body.

Although CBD may be a godsend for patients with difficult-to-treat seizure disorders, CBD only stimulates our CB receptors. THC, on the other hand, directly activates CB receptors. CBD works best if it’s combined with THC, even THC in small amounts, to ensure the endocannabinoid system is both activated and stimulated.

However, THC possesses a host of medicinal properties all by itself. For those of you familiar with CBD’s effects, you may see some overlap between the two.

Brain top view

Image Credit: Teeradej

Neuroprotective

THC can protect brain and nerve cells. This property is called neuroprotection. Without getting too technical, THC regulates the amount of excitatory neurotransmitters our nerve cells send to one another. If our nerve cells get too excited, they can fry out, causing brain damage. But with a little THC, the nerve cells can essentially tune down this excitement. Within our own endocannabinoid system, the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG are released whenever we experience head trauma, so it would appear Mother Nature is on to something.

Tissue Cancer Culture

Image Credit: Polak Photo

Anti-Tumor/Anti-Cancer

Besides preserving our marvelous brains, THC can also kill cancer cells. To review high school biology, our cells are supposed to die off through a process called programmed cell death. This ensures we’re always regenerating new, healthy cells that function properly. Cancer cells, on the other hand, are cells that have forgotten how to die. Their programmed death coding is all wonky.

How does THC kill cancer cells? When THC locks into the CB receptor of a healthy cell, it basically tells that cell to behave in a normal, healthy manner (for the most part; there are always exceptions). But when THC locks onto the CB receptor of a cancerous cell, it can trigger apoptosis, or induced cell death. When this happens, the cancer cell literally devours itself through autophagy, committing suicide while leaving otherwise healthy cells perfectly intact. (Compare that to radiation or chemotherapies, which pretty much kill every cell in the vicinity, cancerous or not.)

Senior Man Smiling

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Antioxidant/Anti-Aging

Stick around the cannabis crowd long enough, and you may notice they look a bit more spry than the average cat. That’s because cannabis is loaded with antioxidants, compounds that neutralize harmful chemicals which damage DNA and degrade our cells.  Aging is a consequence of that cellular degradation. THC, you might have guessed, is one of those antioxidants. Which means it can also slow and perhaps even reverse the aging process.

It’s no wonder, then, that seniors are one of the fastest growing groups to jump on board the cannabis train.

Old man rubbing hand in pain

Image Credit: Sebra

Analgesic

Get your mind out of the gutter. Analgesic means “pain killer.” Most medical cannabis patients use the plant to treat chronic pain, and several cannabinoids are responsible for cannabis’s pain-killing effects. THC is one.

Current research suggests THC doesn’t entirely eliminate pain sensations like, say, opioids do. Rather, THC alters our perception of pain: we know we’re experiencing it, we just don’t mind it as much. Unfortunately, THC as an analgesic doesn’t seem to work for everyone, as one recent Australian study concluded. Cannabis only worked for less than half of all people who tried it for treating pain. (Sadly, ignorant journalists reported that cannabis wasn’t effective for treating pain at all, which isn’t what the data indicated.)

Merry Go Round

Image Credit: Darryl Brooks

Antiemetic

I recently wrote about cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome at RxLeaf, the mysterious vomiting illness caused by chronic cannabis use. Mind you, CHS is incredibly rare. THC is more likely to treat nausea and vomiting than cause them – but as some Indian dude once said, “Take all good things in moderation.”

That THC is anti-emetic is not new. Modern science has known about this since the 1970s, and pharmacopeias stretching back centuries listed cannabis as a treatment for nausea. This property, all of THC’s powers, is probably one of the most important. Antiemesis is what got California legislators to start taking cannabis seriously as a medicine back in the 1990s, when it was used to ease the suffering of HIV/AIDS patients.

The beauty of cannabis is that, unlike pills, it can be taken in a way that bypasses the digestive system. Many antiemetic drugs must be swallowed and given time to settle in the stomach. Patients with nausea will often purge these drugs before they can dissolve and enter the bloodstream. Cannabis can be smoked, vaporized, taken sublingually, applied topically or even insufflated, giving patients multiple options for relief.

Government Admits THC is Medicine

In the U.S., the land of fried Oreos and trillion-dollar fighter jets, THC is classified as a Schedule I drug. Schedule I is reserved for only the most addictive and lethal drugs – like heroin. For the record, drugs like cocaine, meth, and Fentanyl are Schedule II, meaning they’re bad, but not as bad as cannabis. The main qualification separating Schedule I from Schedule II is that Schedule I drugs have no “accepted medical value,” whereas Schedule II drugs have some accepted medical value. (Medical cocaine! Someone call a doctor, my eye hurts.)

Obviously, something makes no sense here. But keep in mind this is the same country where more states legally permit child marriage than allow recreational use of weed. (Um, actually, it’s almost every U.S. state, sadly.)

Cannabis nugs and joints

Image Credit: Lifestyle Discover

If we drop down another tier on the federal scheduling, we find dronabinol a.k.a. Marinol nestled comfortably in Schedule III. Drugs classified as Schedule III have a greater potential for abuse than, say, aspirin or caffeine, but they’re considered relatively chill. Dronabinol is a fancy name for lab-made THC, and the only chemical difference between THC and dronabinol is the position of a single, inconsequential hydrogen atom. But that one hydrogen atom spells the difference between a “naturally occurring” compound that cannot be patented and a patentable molecule (dronabinol) that can be legally monopolized. Follow the money, as it were.

Speaking of patents, the U.S. government holds a patent for brain-protecting drugs made from THC. What’s that? I thought THC didn’t have any accepted medical value?

thc chemical formula

Image Credit: Shutterstock

So you can see the conflict of interest. A doctor can write a prescription for dronabinol, yet they can lose their career for simply recommending cannabis. According to the U.S. federal law enforcement, THC made in a lab has medical value, but if it’s from the plant, then it’s basically Satan in molecular form. However, the National Cancer Institute – a federal organization under the Department of Human Health & Services – recognizes cannabis as a legit treatment for cancer.

This must be awfully confusing for the feds. No wonder they can’t get anything done.

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Randy Robinson

As someone who wanted to know everything but couldn't decide on anything, Randy completed degrees in English, World History, and Molecular Biology. During their studies, they received an externship at the biotech firm Cannabis Science Inc., focusing on phytocannabinoids as anti-tumor and anti-cancer agents. Based in the Mile High City of Denver, Colorado, you can find Randy on Twitter, Instagram, and Medium @RanDieselJay

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